Students heading back to school after a break have always had to readjust: getting up earlier, doing homework after school, and juggling various extracurricular and family activities with online experiences. According to research from the Pew Research Center, 92% of students go online daily, and 24% feel as though they are online constantly. For many students, going online to complete work can quickly become a social check-in with friends that turns into a vortex of distractions (YouTube videos? Netflix binge watching? Online shopping? Check. Check. Check).
I’ve worked with students for the past 16 years on organization, time management, and wellness, and I have found that nearly all students want to do well (even if they won’t readily admit it). Many feel overwhelmed and need tools to help manage the constant onslaught of digital distraction.
Here are five ways to help kids manage online distractions:
Make it all about them. When I visit schools and present to students, I often ask how many of them would want an extra 7–10 hours of free time per week (nearly all hands go up). It is no secret that many of today’s students feel overscheduled and overwhelmed, and usually have activities or hobbies they want to spend more time on. Some might hang out with friends, walk the dog, or spend time shooting hoops. Or they might try a new activity, or bake a cake. The key is to help them identify how they want to spend more time, and what is most meaningful to them. An important part of building better habits is developing the intrinsic motivation to do so, and thinking critically about how to buy back minutes (or hours) of time every day by managing online distractions. (Psst. This works for adults, too!)
Look at your own attitude and approach around online distractions. Many adults become frustrated about the time kids spend online without realizing they are dealing with the very same issues every day. It takes only a few clicks to go from doing research for work to getting lost in an endless news cycle to tracking down fabric samples for the living room couch. Coming from a place of understanding and empathy rather than fear and frustration gives kids the opportunity to be open about their challenges, and makes them more likely to want to work to find solutions.
Gamify it and make it fun. There are so many ways to help kids manage their time online and promote productivity in fun ways. Instead of telling students to spend less time online, I find ways of encouraging them to be aware of how much time they are really spending online. I have students download the Moment app to track how much time they are spending online, and then reflect on whether they would want to “transfer” those minutes elsewhere (see: “Make it all about them.”). Students in my office use the Forest app as a timer so that they can break their homework time into 25-minute work chunks followed by a 5-minute break, known as the Pomodoro method. A fun benefit of the Forest app? Students who stay off their phone for the designated amount build a “digital tree,” which over time can build a forest, and offers visual motivation.
Help them see how they can maximize efforts. Students quickly find that navigating online distractions can be tough – especially when going on YouTube to watch an educational video to help with homework can quickly morph into watching a television clip, a funny online post, and on and on. Encouraging them to problem-solve and find ways to compartmentalize their tasks can decrease the amount of time it takes them to complete their work. Doing work in a place without other distractions and using web blocker apps like Self-Control or the Google chrome extension StayFocusd can maximize productivity.
Help kids promote digital detox opportunities offline on a regular basis. When I ask students what they would do with their 7–10 extra hours of free time per week, the number one answer I always hear is sleep. In his new book, Why We Sleep, author and UC Berkeley Sleep and Neuroimaging Lab director Matt Walker talks about the critical importance of sleep and how a lack of sleep affects our learning, memory, comprehension, emotional intelligence, and social relationships. And yet, so many kids will answer texts or check apps while simultaneously trying to go to sleep, which really doesn’t work. Helping promote daily and weekly digital detox opportunities – by taking devices out of the bedroom at night (no more phone as the alarm clock!) and providing a structured break at some point each weekend – can be critical to having happier, more well-adjusted children in and outside of the classroom.